Digital labour, academic labour and Karl Marx

Below are some initial notes on Christian Fuchs’ book, Digital Labour and Karl Marx (2014). I think it was published about six weeks ago and as far as I can see, has yet to receive any substantive reviews. Don’t take this as a review either, it’s just a first pass at working through the book and trying to think about what it can bring to discussions around academic labour. On the whole, I’m very impressed with it. It’s 400 pages, comprehensively structured with a glossary at the back, and so a very useful reference and teaching resource. It combines a good discussion of Marx’s critique of political economy with a literature review and several illustrative case studies. I’ll be buying it as soon as it’s out in paperback (the publisher has told me May 2014, at the latest).

Defining ‘digital labour’: Form and content, appearance and essence, abstract and concrete

Fuchs’ book opens with:

“How is labour changing in the age of computers, the Internet, and “social media” such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter? In Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Christian Fuchs attempts to answer that question, crafting a systematic critical theorisation of labour as performed in the capitalist ICT industry. Relying on a range of global case studies – from unpaid social media prosumers or Chinese hardware assemblers at Foxconn to miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo – Fuchs sheds light on the labour costs of digital media, examining the way ICT corporations exploit human labour and the impact of this exploitation on the lives, bodies, and minds of workers.”

From this we are made aware that this is not a book about ‘immaterial labour’ or ‘cognitive capitalism’, although it discusses these theories, but rather it is primarily a critique of the forms of labour that contribute to the production of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT).

The book is divided into three main sections: Theory, case studies and conclusions.

The first section begins with an introduction to what ‘digital labour’ refers to and why it should be studied. Fuchs defines digital labour through reference to examples: mining for minerals used in mobile phones; Foxconn factory workers; Google software engineers; Amazon’s Mechanical Turk; Amazon’s warehouse workers; Work.Shop.Play, a website that rewards people for completing surveys for market research; and crowdsourcing the translation of Facebook’s website into other languages. From this, Fuchs defines ‘digital labour’ in the following way:

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers. The forms of labour described in this book are all types of digital labour because they are part of a collective work force that is required for the existence, usage and application of digital media. What defines them is not a common type of occupation, but rather the industry they contribute to and in which capital exploits them.” (p. 4)

In the book’s glossary (‘Digital Labour Keywords’), the entry for digital labour is:

Digital labour Digital labour is alienated digital work: it is alienated from itself, from the instruments and objects of labour and from the products of labour. Alienation is alienation of the subject from itself (labour-power is put to use for and is controlled by capital), alienation from the object (the objects of labour and the instruments of labour) and the subject-object (the products of labour). Digital work and digital labour are broad categories that involve all activities in the production of digital media technologies and contents.

This means that in the capitalist media industry, different forms of alienation and exploitation can be encountered. Examples are slave workers in mineral extraction, Taylorist hardware assemblers, software engineers, professional online content creators (e.g. online journalists), call centre agents and social media prosumers. In digital labour that is performed on corporate social media, users are objectively alienated because (a) in relation to subjectivity, they are coerced by isolation and social disadvantage if they leave monopoly capital platforms (such as Facebook); (b) in relation to the objects of labour, their human experiences come under the control of capital; (c) in relation to the instruments of labour, the platforms are not owned by users but by private companies that also commodify user data; and (d) in relation to the product of labour, monetary profit is individually controlled by the platform’s owners. These four forms of alienation constitute together the exploitation of digital labour by capital. Alienation of digital labour concerns labour-power, the object and instruments of labour and the created products.” See also: digital work
Digital work Digital work is a specific form of work that makes use of the body, mind or machines or a combination of all or some of these elements as an instrument of work in order to organize nature, resources extracted from nature, or culture and human experiences, in such a way that digital media are produced and used. The products of digital work are depending on the type of work: minerals, components, digital media tools or digitally mediated symbolic representations, social relations, artefacts, social systems and communities. Digital work includes all activities that create use-values that are objectified in digital media technologies, contents and products generated by applying digital media.

See also: digital labour” (p. 352)

I’ve quoted these in full because it’s important to know what we’re analysing and because I want to determine whether and how ‘academic labour’ differs from ‘digital labour’. After all, I am engaged in implementing a digital education strategy at my university, I have run a number of ICT related projects over the years and I think the label ‘digital scholar’ applies to academics like me. Am I a digital worker? Is my academic labour also digital labour?

From Fuchs’ definitions, we can say that digital labour is indeed a “broad category”. I think we can distil it as:

Alienated and exploited digital work which is defined by its association with the ICT industry; it creates value for that industry. It incorporates all physiological aspects of the human body, its relationship to nature and machines. It is objectified in digital goods as well as services that are reliant on digital goods.

Another way to define digital labour is to question what it is not. Can we think of a type of labouring activity that can not be included under this broad category? We have seen above that ‘digital work’ is not defined by its direct relationship to digital outputs. For example, in a month of work, the miner of minerals for a mobile phone may never encounter an ICT technology. They may live without access to electricity, walk to work, dig holes and that is the extent of their labouring routine. As Fuchs notes in the introduction to his case study on the slavery of mineral mining (what he calls ‘digital slavery’), “most of the slaves who extract these minerals have never owned a computer or laptop.” (p.155) So in thinking about non-digital labour, we need to think of a type of labouring activity where the ICT industry does not profit from it in any way and it does not produce ICT goods or any services that rely on ICT.

The first thing that comes to my mind is food production. Is this digital labour? The food commodity is not a digital object, yet according to Fuchs’ definition, I think large-scale, industrial food production and manufacturing (e.g. ‘e-agriculture‘) could count as digital labour. It is highly mechanised and relies on the global trade of food commodities. The ICT industry definitely benefits from the production processes of food, even apart from it keeping their workers alive.

What about nursing? The ICT industry definitely benefits from the medical and care professions. The act of care in a hospital or care home can be seen as contributing to the profits of the ICT industry. It may at first seem like a long stretch between patient care and the revenues of Dell, for example, but the labour of a nurse includes the use of ICT and management of that labour requires the use of ICT. Cisco, for example, thinks that ‘ICT [is] at the heart of NHS reform‘. [pdf] It is an “integral and underpinning part of NHS business”.

The issue that Fuchs’ definition of digital labour points to is that it could include most types of labour. Even slavery is referred to as ‘digital slavery’. However, Fuchs suggests otherwise in his discussion of an imaginary company where workers’ time is divided 50/50 between the production of laptops and the production of cars. Fuchs says that 50% of the time the individual undertakes digital work and 50% is not digital work, yet for 100% of their time they are an “industrial worker.” I understand what Fuchs is saying here and the need to distinguish between labour that is directly involved in the production of ICT and that which is not, but how close does the worker have to be to the ICT commodity? The miner working under slave-like conditions may never see the phones that contain the minerals they labour and die for, but I walk around with the results of their labour in my pocket all day. My consumption is their production. In the case of cars, which seems like a weak example given how all new cars are ‘managed’ by computers, the designer, the fabricator, the factory floor manager, the person who maintains the production line robots, and even the hands-on worker who assembles and finishes the car, all of these roles today draw on the use of ICT and through their production of vehicles, they also produce value for the ICT industry.  Consumption and production are never far apart. Without consumption, there would be no production.  Marx recognised this in his manuscripts:

“Production, then, is also immediately consumption, consumption is also immediately production. Each is immediately its opposite. But at the same time a mediating movement takes place between the two. Production mediates consumption; it creates the latter’s material; without it, consumption would lack an object. But consumption also mediates production, in that it alone creates for the products the subject for whom they are products. The product only obtains its ‘last finish’ in consumption.”

Fuchs’ definition suggests to me that almost all labour in the world today that engages in the capitalist mode of production could be called ‘digital labour’. From ‘digital slaves’ to ‘digital scholars‘, the social form of labour remains the same, even though the way in which it appears in the particular, concrete case studies, may look quite different.

For example, the essential content of labour of both mineral miners and scholars shares the following common attributes and only the degree to which these attributes characterise their work is different.

  • they both sell their labour power in exchange for a wage, without which they could not survive.
  • they are both alienated (separated) from the product of their labour which becomes the private property of their employer. Private property is an outcome of alienated labour. Value can therefore only be derived from the labour of an individual which is alienated.
  • they are both exploited because their employers pay them less than the value they create
  • the labour of the slave and scholar has both a concrete and abstract form: concrete in the physiological sense that produces something of use (a use value), and abstract as a result of the alienation of their work being a source of undifferentiated value which is measured quantitatively by ‘socially necessary labour time’ at the moment of exchange (exchange value)
  • the value they create decreases as their productivity increases due to competition between capitalists
  • the labour of both the slave and the scholar does not exist apart from the process of capitalist valorisation (M-C-M’)

A Marxist analysis of labour shows that the enormous diversity of labour as it appears within capitalism has a particular historical content. The various activities of labour highlight how capitalism relies on the socialisation and division of labour: The scholar undertakes research which identifies certain minerals useful for networked communication, and the miner undertakes to extract those minerals. This is capitalism’s social, co-operative division of labour.  It is one thing to critique labour at the level of appearances, skills, conditions, etc., and another to discuss it through general abstractions which help us understand why we find ourselves labouring in this co-operative and social, yet alienated and exploited way. The danger is that we complicate our analysis unnecessarily by introducing terms such as ‘digital labour’, ‘academic labour’, ‘immaterial labour’, etc. and take our eye off the real target of critique which is labour defined by the capitalist mode of production.

When applying a Marxist critique of society, we don’t start with the way things appear to us in a particular concrete sense, but rather from a dialectical method of abstraction that attempts to identify the real content of things. In Capital, having discussed the ‘buying and selling of labour power’, Marx insists that to really understand what is at work, we must inquire into the ‘hidden abode’ of the capitalist mode of production.

“Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.”

The “noisy sphere” in which (digital) labour appears to us on the “surface”, while appearing to be the obvious place to begin an analysis, should in fact be the end point. The working conditions are terrible – we can see that, but why are they terrible? Not simply because the capitalist is greedy and violent, but because he is compelled by a totalising, social mode of production that, like the labourer, his life is determined by. To discover this, Marx tells us that we must “rise from the abstract to the concrete” in our analysis, scientifically applying a categorial analysis to the everyday appearance of things so as to determine the categories of capitalist social relations at work e.g. alienation, exploitation, use/exchange value, concrete/abstract labour, etc.

These abstractions reveal the social form of things which appear in the particular concrete activity but which have a ‘hidden’, historical, socially constructed content.

As a result, what we find is that the distinction of digital or non-digital labour is less useful than understanding the degree to which different appearances of concrete labouring activity express the content of capitalist labour as listed above. Clearly on one level, the particular work of the slave and scholar are very far apart. The conditions of employment, the degree of alienation, the magnitude of exploitation and the degree to which the value of each individual can be measured are all very different. Fuchs’ definition recognises this by encompassing both the slave miner and the Google engineer yet he does not go as far as negating the idea of ‘digital labour’ as ‘digital work’ which benefits the ICT industry.

“These examples outline various forms of labour associated with the ICT industry. They differ in amount in regard to the levels of payment; health risks; physical, ideological and social violence; stress; free time; overtime; and the forms of coercion and control the workers are experiencing, but all have in common that human labour-power is exploited in a way that monetarily benefits ICT corporations and has negative impacts on the lives, bodies or minds of workers.” (p.6)

Forces and relations of production

The question then, is whether ‘digital labour’ is a useful, critical category that provides a deeper insight into contemporary capitalist society. Does the advent of ‘digital labour’ point to a different ‘logic’ of the capitalist mode of production? Is Marx’s critique still relevant? Later in his book (ch.5), Fuchs discusses this in relation to the distinction made between capitalist society and an information society. He draws on Adorno who gave a keynote talk on the topic of ‘Late Capitalism or Industrial Society?’ Basically, Adorno was asking “whether it is true that Marx is out of date.” Adorno proposes that contemporary society is industrial according to the state of its forces of production while being capitalist in its relations of production.

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society undoubtedly is an industrial society according to the state of its forces of production. Industrial labor has everywhere become the model of society as such, regardless of the frontiers separating differing political systems. It has developed into a totality because methods modeled on those of industry are necessarily extended by the laws of economics to other realms of material production, administration, the sphere of distribution, and those that call themselves culture. In contrast, however, society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. […] Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit” (Adorno, 1968)

Fuchs re-phrases Adorno’s dialectic by proposing that,

“In terms of critical, dialectical theory, I would like to propose as an initial, necessarily abstract answer that contemporary society is an information society according to the state of its forces of production. In contrast, however, contemporary society is capitalist in its relations of production. People are still what they were in Marx’s analysis in the middle of the nineteenth century. Production takes place today, as then, for the sake of profit, and for achieving this end it to a certain extent makes use of knowledge and information technology in production. Productive forces and relations of production are interlocking phenomena: they contain each other.” (p.150)

Fuchs is critical of the tendency of some critics who want to separate the ‘information society’ from capitalist society, to argue that either everything has changed or that nothing has fundamentally changed since Marx undertook his critique of political economy. Fuchs rightly argues that a dialectical analysis is necessary, one which recognises that

“there are certain changes taking place that are intended to support the deepening of the class structure but also contain what Marx termed Keimformen (germ forms of an alternative society). That the development of the informational productive forces is itself contradictory and comes in conflict with the capitalist relations of production can be observed by phenomena such as file sharing on the Internet, the discussions about intellectual property rights, the emergence of pirate parties in the political landscape of advanced capitalist countries, or the popularity of free software” (p. 151)

I agree. However, following my distinction earlier about using Marx’s critical categories to understand the social form of capitalist labour, I’d like to suggest a different way of approaching an analysis of ‘digital labour’ that reconciles all of the issues I have outlined above: the distinction between production and consumption; between content and form of labour; and between the forces and relations of production.

In some earlier notes I made on the work of Simon Clarke and Moishe Postone, I highlighted the distinction between analysis at the level of content and analysis at the level of form.

“For Clarke, “questions of form are more fundamental than questions of content” and for Postone, it is vital to understand “the distinction between what modern capitalism is and the way it appears.” Both writers deem a retreat into the concrete as misguided as it misunderstands capital and its contradictions. Consequently, opponents of capital frequently experience a demoralised sense of political impotency – a sense of helplessness.”

My concern with Fuchs’ definition of ‘digital labour’ and in the general development of the ‘digital labour’ line of critique over the last few years is that it leads to a position of helplessness by focusing on the appearance of labour to the neglect of its social form. In his book, Marx, Marginalism and Modern Sociology (1991), Simon Clarke includes a section on ‘The contradictory social form of capitalist production’ (p.228). In this section of his book, he responds to the

“marginalist attempt to establish the rationality of capitalist exchange and of capitalist production. We now have to put production and exchange together, to locate the source of the fundamental irrationality of exchange, which is to be found in the contradictory social form of capitalist reproduction.” (p.229)

Clarke goes on to discuss how the capitalist mode of production is a social process requiring both producers and consumers. The historical separation of the direct producer from the means of production was “not sufficient to secure the reproduction of the social relations of capitalist production.” (p.229) Workers who sell their labour power receive a wage with which they are no longer propertyless and on which they subsist. The capitalist has produced commodities through the purchase of labour power, but they are worthless until they are exchanged for money in the hands of consumers.

“The social reproduction of the capitalist mode of production now depends on the particular use made of the commodities in the hands of the worker and the capitalist: the worker must use the money in her possession to reconstitute herself, physically and socially, as a wage labourer. The capitalist must use the means of production and labour-power in his possession to reconstitute himself as a capitalist.” (p.229)

Thus, the consumer, who is only a consumer because they are a producer of labour power which they sell for a wage, is dependent on the production of commodities by capitalists who are dependent on the consumption of commodities by workers. In a capitalist society, production and consumption are, as noted above, “immediately opposite”. Workers are required to sell enough of their labour power, measured in time, so as to subsist (‘necessary labour’) and the employer seeks to ‘extend’ the time of labouring, either literally or by improving productivity such that the worker is more productive in a given period of time (this is deemed ‘surplus labour’). It is the surplus labour, above and beyond what the worker is paid for, which invests the commodity with the potential to realise profit upon exchange.

The important point that Clarke makes in this section is that despite workers being paid a wage upon which they should be able to subsist, the capitalist mode of production relies on the imposition of a socially constructed scarcity.

“The physical reproduction of the worker is not a sufficient condition for the social reproduction of the worker as a wage-labourer. If wages rise significantly above the socially determined subsistence level there will be no compulsion on the worker to return to work for the next period. The form of the wage-relation therefore not only determines the needs of the worker as a consumer, it also determines that the relation between those needs and the worker’s resources will be a relation of scarcity – not the natural scarcity depicted by the economists, but the socially constructed scarcity imposed by the dynamics of capitalism. It is this relation of scarcity that forces the vast majority of workers to assume a ‘rational’ orientation to work and to consumption, working to maximise their incomes, and carefully allocating their scarce resources to ensure that they can meet their subsistence needs, rather than assuming the ‘hedonistic’ orientation of the bourgeoisie, for whom work can be a means of self-realisation and consumption a source of pleasure. The capitalist system of production, far from representing the most rational means of resolving the problem of scarcity, depends on the reproduction of scarcity, whether by the restriction of wages or the inflation of needs.” (p. 230)

Both the worker and the capitalist are subject to this process of socially constructed scarcity. It is not simply a matter of capitalists exploiting individuals in their roles of worker and consumer. The reproduction of capital, necessary to both the capitalist and the worker in this social relation, entails the subordination of labour due to competition.

“Competition is the form in which capital presents itself as a barrier to its own reproduction.” (p. 231)

That is, competition results in the necessary improvement of productivity so that the price of commodities can be set lower and in line with competitors’ prices, thus pushing down the value produced per commodity and thus requiring the production and sale of more commodities so as to realise the intended and required overall value for the capitalist. Greater productivity results in the value of labour decreasing and only the sale of greater quantities of commodities can make up for that fall in value. This results in a tendency to overproduce commodities and in response stimulates the expansion of needs so as to create a condition of scarcity from a condition of abundance. Eventually, this results in a crisis of overproduction where consumption, fuelled by the wage-relation and extended by forms of credit, cannot be maintained in line with production. At the point of crisis, exchange of certain commodities collapses and therefore so does the production of value.

Clarke’s book, and this section in particular, is especially useful in understanding how both consumers and producers are stimulated by competition between capitalists, who themselves are subject to the determinate and irrational ‘logic’ of capital. It helps us understand how the inflation of needs and socially constructed scarcity compel individuals into membership of the social form of capitalist production, to valorise value at the point where production and consumption become immediate and value is realised: exchange. Consumption is subject to the wage-relation and the requirements of production, which is constantly being improved leading to the overproduction of commodities, which in turn imposes competition within the market. This competition compels capitalists to stimulate a greater variety of ‘needs’, further alienating labour from its product.

“Such alienation persists so long as the human activity of workers as producers is subordinated to a need imposed on the workers to reduce their labour-time to a minimum, instead of being subordinated to the human needs and abilities of the workers themselves.” (p. 231)

Thus, the ‘forces of production’ have not been reconstituted from an industrial to information society. Information enables greater productivity in industry and platforms such as Facebook, whose commercial value is largely dependent on advertising revenue, are opportunities to stimulate social need and impose scarcity. Adorno’s distinction between ‘industrial’ and ‘capitalist’ was a false one, as is the distinction between ‘information’ and ‘capitalism’. As Clarke shows, capital is a social relation. Its social form is to be discovered in its form of production, not in the different historic methods of improving productivity nor in the various expressions of its commodity form. Capital appears in the form of things which control the lives of people, but Marx showed that it is a historic form of social relations based on the compulsion to produce value, the current, historic form of social wealth. Such compulsion exploits the need for individuals to sustain their lives as well as their productive capacity to meet those needs through the imposition of private property and wage-labour. The development of technology (steam, analogue, digital, etc.) in itself does not indicate new historical productive forces. The productive force is the capital relation, expressed through wage-labour and private property, the organising principle of life under capitalism.

From this standpoint, ‘digital labour’ as defined earlier is not a distinctive form of labour but carries all of the attributes of labour required of the social form of capitalist production. The excellent case studies that Fuchs usefully provides (miners, Foxconn workers, Indian software developers, Google employees, call centre workers, and social media users) support the definition of ‘digital labour’ as labour which profits the ICT industry, but arguably presents the digital labourer as the personification of a new type and use of labour power. Yet, Fuchs’ conclusions are quite the opposite. His book is rich with an analysis of Marx’s critical categories and the case studies are discussed in terms laid out in his more theoretical first section. Fuchs makes clear that

“The “information economy” is not new, postmodern or radically discontinuous. It is rather a highly complex formation in which various contemporary and historical forms of labour, exploitation, different forms of organization of the productive forces, and different modes of production are articulated with each other and form a dialectic of exploitation.” (p.296)

What Fuchs’ book does is establish ‘digital labour’ as a distinct form of labour and then, by the end, takes that assumption apart by showing how digital labour is simply capitalist labour and that Marx’s 150 year-old critique remains highly relevant and useful today. His book is a response to an emerging understanding of ‘digital labour’ which confined it to mainly unpaid labour through social media and he argues for an extension of the definition to incorporate a broader range of labour practices which benefit the ICT industry.

 “Digital labour has thus far mainly been used as a term characterizing unpaid labour conducted by social media users (see the contributions in Scholz 2013). We can conclude from the discussion in this book that social media prosumption is just one form of digital labour which is networked with and connected to other forms of digital labour that together constitute a global ecology of exploitation enabling the existence of digital media. It is time to broaden the meaning of the term “digital labour” to include all forms of paid and unpaid labour that are needed for existence, production, diffusion and use of digital media. Digital labour is relational in a twofold sense: it is a relation between labour and capital and relational at the level of the IDDL that is shaped by articulated modes of production, forms of the organization of productive forces and variations of the dominant capitalist mode of production.” (p.296)

In my view, this still falls short of the necessary task of understanding these types of labour as simply ‘capitalist labour’ and in doing so, remains a distraction from the purpose and method of critical political economy which is to start from the abstract and rise to the concrete. ‘Digital labour’ theory seems to implicitly start from the concrete appearance of new and novel forms of ‘digital work’; Marx insists that we begin with abstractions; Postone warns us that to focus on the concrete appearance of things leads to a sense of helplessness; and Clarke reminds us that the object of critique is capital, a social form of human relations determined by the self-valorisation of value. The point then, is to discover a new form of social wealth other than value and in doing so, necessarily abolish the substance of value: labour, and in doing so, overcome capitalism. As Fuchs says:

“The law of value has not lost its force. It is in full effect everywhere in the world where exploitation takes place. It has been extended to underpaid and unpaid forms of labour, corporate media prosumption being just one of them. As a result of technical increases in productivity, the value of commodities tends to historically decrease. At the same time, value is the only source of capital, commodities and profit in capitalism. The contradictions of value have resulted in a disjuncture of values, profits and prices that contributes to actual or potential crises, which shows that crises are inherent to capitalism. This it turn makes it feasible to replace capitalism with a commons-based system of existence, in which not value but creativity, social relations, free time and play are the source of value*. Such a society is called communism and is the negation of the negativity of capitalism.” (p.279)

* Fuchs’ specific use of the term ‘value’ at this point is confusing. I prefer ‘social wealth’ as a way of distinguishing ‘value’ the substance of which is abstract labour, from a qualitatively different post-capitalist form of social relations.

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